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Reusable Transport Packaging: Good for the Planet, Operational Efficiency and Brand Protection

Image credit: Sustainable Plant

Packaging. The term evokes images of wrappers, tubs, pouches and other types of product encasements we see on store shelves every day. Meanwhile, transport packaging such as pallets, cardboard boxes and plastic stretch wrap remain largely hidden from shoppers’ view. Typically made for one-time or limited use, it travels between manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers, and is generally removed before the final product reaches the consumer. Nonetheless, the purchase, handling and disposal of these materials are significant cost factors, as are their environmental impact: solid waste, energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Many forward-thinking companies are switching from traditional transport packaging materials to durable, reusable alternatives, including totes, racks, pallets and pallet wraps, generally lasting five years or more. The environmental benefits are impressive: Studies have found that, on average, reusable containers generate 29% fewer GHG emissions, 39% lower energy consumption, and 95% less solid waste than single-use packaging, even when that packaging was recycled at end of life. But the operational advantages of reusable transport packaging may be even more convincing.

Lowering packaging-related expenses

In the San Francisco East Bay, the Bay Area Newsgroup (formerly ANG Newspapers) replaced wooden pallets used to distribute their newspapers with durable plastic pallets, preventing not only 37 tons of wood waste — and associated disposal costs — per year, but also saving $46,000 on labor, previously needed to repair and handle broken wood pallets. The project’s return on investment is 125%.

Ghirardelli bins
Ghirardelli Chocolate replaced cardboard boxes with durable, reusable totes to transport chocolate squares inside the manufacturing plant. Annual net savings exceed $520,000.

Across the Bay, Ghirardelli Chocolate took a gradual approach to introducing reusable transport packaging: The company first switched from cardboard boxes — used to move chocolate inside the plant — to reusable plastic totes, avoiding the purchase and disposal of 660 tons of cardboard each year. Unlike cardboard boxes, the plastic totes rarely collapse and crush the chocolate, preventing an additional 800 tons per year of waste from damaged product. A second phase added totes to capture product that falls off of production conveyor lines. Instead of going to waste, it can now be entered back into the production run. This prevents the disposal of an additional 100,000 to 150,000 lbs of food waste per year. The bottom line: annual net savings exceed $520,000 after a payback period of 1.1 years.

Improving operational efficiency

Streamlining processes is always important, but particularly in fast-paced environments such as hospitals. Stanford University Medical Center (SUMC) goes through large amounts of medical and surgical supplies every day. Receiving, repacking and distributing supplies from numerous vendors to SUMC’s over 300 stocking stations meant not only storing large volumes of packaging material for recycling and disposal, but also required a significant amount of labor. Collaborating with their main distributor, Owens & Minor, SUMC switched to standardized, reusable plastic totes for “just in time” shipments of small, custom orders, delivered directly to each stocking location. The new system has dramatically reduced packaging waste, solved space constraints at the loading dock and freed up clinicians to focus on patient care.

Tesla windshield rack
Reusable windshield racks at Tesla Motors prevent hundreds of tons of disposable windshield packaging materials.

Manufacturing is another sector where reusable transport packaging contributes to operational efficiency. Tesla Motors’ production facility in Fremont, CA, recently replaced the disposable packaging for their Model S windshields — including cardboard, wood frames and foam — with returnable racks, effectively eliminating all waste generated by windshield packaging. The new practice helps solve space challenges at Tesla’s shipping dock, allows workers to spend less time handling packaging materials and helps the company reduce its environmental footprint. Tesla is working to expand the practice to other parts.

Worker safety and product protection

Worker safety is among the key arguments for a transition to reusable transport packaging. Veritable Vegetable, a provider of organic fresh fruit and vegetables in San Francisco, CA, switched from wood pallets and disposable plastic pallet wrap to reusable plastic pallets and pallet wraps made from durable mesh material. With over 100 pallets of produce received and shipped out daily, repetitive movements such as bending and pulling to wrap pallets in several layers of plastic film are hard on workers’ backs. VV ag cratesVeritable’s new user-friendly reusable wraps reduce the physical burden as well as time needed to get the job done. The new practice also eliminates the recurring purchase of some 700 miles of plastic film wrap per year.

Product protection is of particular importance for the distribution of perishable goods. Reusable plastic containers (RPCs) are becoming more commonplace in fresh food supply chains, because they hold up against moisture and allow for ventilation, dramatically reducing spoilage during processing and shipping. In 2010 Safeway Inc. began transitioning to RPCs for their wet-pack produce — fruits and vegetables kept on ice until they reach the store. In California’s Central Valley, produce now travels in RPCs all the way from growers to Safeway’s distribution center in Tracy, CA, to the chain’s stores in the region. Besides reducing spoilage, Safeway’s initiative has eliminated the use of more than 17 million pounds of corrugated boxes and prevented 37,518 metric tons of GHG emissions so far.

Contracting with third-party poolers  

Reusable packaging can require a more sophisticated logistics process, as materials must be returned for reuse. This can be especially complex in an “open loop” distribution system, such as Safeway’s, where containers don’t return directly to their origin but ship from one or many locations to various destinations. Fortunately, third-party poolers can help manage the process. These companies lease out standardized pallets and containers on an as-needed basis, often as a full-service package that includes container delivery, tracking, pick-up, cleaning, maintenance and storage. Ideally, all links in the supply chain use the same container types so that no repackaging is necessary, further reducing handling, labor and spoilage.

With so many success stories and good arguments in favor of reusable transport packaging, who makes a good candidate? As a rule of thumb, organizations receiving a lot of disposable transport packaging materials from suppliers or making repeat purchases of those materials for shipping will likely be able to increase their operational efficiency with reusable packaging. Recurring product damage, underutilized trailer or storage space and worker safety or ergonomics issues may all be resolved with reusable packaging.

Finally, any business or brand deriving value from its commitment to sustainability may want to consider reusable transport packaging — not only from an environmental perspective, but also as brand protection. After all, who would want their hard-earned reputation as a sustainable brand tarnished when that very brand is displayed on cardboard boxes in a customer’s or supply chain partner’s garbage dumpster? While there’s little control over the fate of one-way, expendable packaging, a transport system using reusable packaging has the return of  and return on — the materials built in.

Learn more about reusable transport packaging at www.UseReusables.com, where you will also find case studies on Veritable Vegetable, Tesla, Ghirardelli, ANG Newspapers, USMC, Safeway and more.

Images courtesy of StopWaste.

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of innovations in sustainable #packaging, check out our Issue in Focus.

Justin Lehrer is a program manager at StopWaste, a public agency in in Oakland, California who has been working with both the private and public sectors for over 15 years to meet and exceed sustainability goals. Currently, Justin manages… [Read more about Justin Lehrer]


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